20 July 2016

So, Why Did I Join GAIN?

My warm thanks to the hundreds of you who have sent me messages of congratulations about my recent appointment to the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).  So, why did I decide to apply for the GAIN Executive Director position and why did I accept the Board’s offer to join (I begin on October 1)? 

First, much of GAIN’s work revolves around improving access to food that is safe, nutritious and affordable.  Poor quality diets and diet related conditions represent the largest set of risk factors for the global burden of disease -- greater than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined.  These poor quality diets have massive economic consequences – equivalent to a having a global financial crisis every year, according to the 2016 Global Nutrition Report.  This state of affairs reflects enormous food system failures.  

The food environments that consumers make decisions in are not helping them make food choices that support high quality diets.  That is because these diet choices are unaffordable, not available, or are not framed by businesses and governments as desirable.  This makes improving the food environment, and the food system that underlies it, such an important challenge for the achievement of a wide range of Sustainable Development Goals. Food is not the only thing that is important for nutrition status—we all know that—but it is the thing that is least easy to change through public action alone (unlike say water and sanitation, health facilities and schools) and it is important for all forms of malnutrition. Public sector leadership on setting priorities and on establishing and enforcing regulatory frameworks is essential if businesses and NGOs are to play a positive role in nutrition, but the public sector cannot do it on its own.

That brings me to the second reason: food systems are not mainly populated by bureaucrats, but by consumers and businesses.  Some of the businesses—whether small, medium, large or very large--act positively for nutrition, some act negatively and some do both.  By working with businesses that have positive track records in nutrition –and evaluating those efforts independently--we can begin to change the food system to work harder to give consumers choices that support the pursuit of improved diets.  For businesses that do not have a good track record, we should be able to explain to them—with evidence--why what they do is negative for nutrition and what they can do to change that.  In this way GAIN and other organizations can make it easier for everyone to understand when, why and how it makes sense to engage businesses in efforts to accelerate malnutrition reduction.  Changing norms about businesses and nutrition away from “business=good” and “business=bad” towards something more nuanced and which helps identify and manage conflicts of interest, would be a major contribution. 

Third, it seems to me that there are not enough people and organisations working in this space, namely on how to make food systems more nutrition friendly.  There are lots of reports available now on what to do, but few have credibly evaluated attempts to actually innovate for change in the system.  GAIN and others have the opportunity to really populate this space with examples of things that were tried and worked (or did not).  The key is to learn and share the learning with others.  Hence the alliance- building role of GAIN is absolutely essential to moving forwards.  We all know that to end malnutrition we have to form alliances that are powerful enough to counteract the powerful forces that generate malnutrition.  In part this means people and organisations getting on with their jobs and doing them well, but in part it is about the strategic and tactical joining of forces to accomplish things that single organisations cannot do on their own.  GAIN, if it does this sensitively, carefully and wisely, can help build new positive alliances to end malnutrition, identifying ways of conducting due diligence on potential partners--whether from the public or private sector--and documenting behavior that is essential if nutrition status is to be improved and not diminished.   

Finally, I have been really impressed by the quality of the GAIN Board and staff that I have met.  They are clearly driven by a vision of ending malnutrition.  And they have brought GAIN a long way forward in a short space of time (GAIN is only 15 next year).  I really look forward to working with them to take GAIN to the next level.  What does success look like?  It is too early to tell, and this is just my opinion as of now, but in 10 years time I would like to see GAIN contribute to a handful of widely scaled innovations (systems, institutional, governance, technological) that have made it easier for those who are malnourished to claim sustainable access to food that is nutritious, safe and affordable. 

GAIN and the entire nutrition community have a fantastic chance to change the way we think and act about how food systems--and the actors within them--can work better for good nutrition.

Come and work with us to make it a reality.

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